Risk Factors for Skin Cancer

With approximately 1 in 5 Americans developing skin cancer before the age of 70, it’s the most common type of cancer. There are several types of skin cancer, and they generally develop when skin cells mutate and begin growing uncontrollably.

Skin cancer is extremely common, but the good news is that when it’s identified early, it’s very curable. Ellis A. Tinsley, MD, FACS, FSVS, and our team at Tinsley Surgery in Wilmington, North Carolina, specialize in general surgery, including skin cancer treatment. 

Skin cancer can happen to anyone, regardless of their gender, race, or skin color. But, certain factors increase your chances of developing this common cancer.

A few of the most common risk factors for skin cancer include:

Unprotected sun exposure

The leading cause of skin cancer is exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light. The sun emits harmful UVA and UVB rays, which damage the DNA in your skin cells. This damage can cause genetic mutations that lead to cancerous growth.

The damage that unprotected sun exposure causes is cumulative. That means your risk increases as you get older, because your skin gets more and more exposure. UV exposure can cause basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). Exposure that leads to sunburns can cause melanoma, which is the most serious form of skin cancer.

Indoor tanning

Sun exposure is a top risk factor for skin cancer, but did you know that indoor tanning beds can cause just as much harm as the sun’s rays? Tanning outside and indoors can both lead to skin cancer. 

Tanning beds emit UV light, which damages skin cells in the same way as sun exposure. Your risk of developing melanoma increases by about 75% if you use a tanning bed just once before the age of 35. 

A history of sunburns

Sunburn is your skin’s reaction to unprotected exposure to harmful UVA and UVB light. Inflammation in skin cells causes the redness, swelling, blistering, and pain that are common with sunburn.

Getting a sunburn is painful, but it also causes lasting skin damage. Sunburn contributes to premature aging and is one of the greatest risk factors for nearly every type of skin cancer. In fact, your risk of developing melanoma doubles if you’ve had five or more sunburns in your lifetime.


Your genetics determine how much melanin your skin has. Melanin is the pigment that gives color to your skin, and it helps protect it from the sun’s rays. It darkens skin that’s exposed to the sun, which is how tans develop.

People with lighter skin (and less melanin) are at increased risk for skin cancer, as are people with red hair. It’s important to note, however, that people with darker skin can also get skin cancer, and early warning signs may be more easily missed.

Atypical moles

Most people have moles, or areas of pigment that are darker than the rest of their skin. But in most cases, moles are small, regular in appearance, and non-cancerous. Having larger, irregularly shaped moles could increase your risk of skin cancer.

Atypical moles aren’t necessarily cancerous, but people with 10 or more atypical moles are at greater risk of melanoma. Risk increases if you have a family history of melanoma.

Some risk factors, like having fair skin or red hair, can’t be changed. But there’s a lot you can do to reduce your risk of skin cancer. Wear broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher every day, and avoid tanning beds and excessive sun exposure.

Skin cancer is most treatable when it’s detected early, so taking an active role in your health care can make a difference. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends performing monthly self-exams to check for unusual spots or moles, and you should get professional skin exams annually.

Ready to learn more about reducing your risk for skin cancer, as well as diagnosis and treatment options? Call our office at 910-421-2394 or book an appointment online today.

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